Marilynne Robinson and the history of American Christianity

Casey Cep of The New Yorker has written the best piece on Marilynne Robinson I have ever read. As some of you know, Robinson has a new book out in her “Gilead” series. It is titled Jack.

In these excerpts, Cep writes about the ways the history of American Christianity has shaped Robinson’s literary imagination.

Robinson’s own religious imagination took shape during her sophomore year of college, when a philosophy professor assigned Jonathan Edwards’s “The Great Christian Doctrine of Original Sin Defended.” The treatise contains a footnote that changed her life; in it, Edwards observes that although moonlight seems permanent, its brightness is renewed continuously. Believers often say that God meets them where they are and speaks to them in voices they can understand, so perhaps it is fitting that Robinson found her own revelation in a seldom read yet much maligned two-hundred-year-old book. An eighteenth-century evangelist articulated what she had always felt: that existence is miraculous, that at any moment the luminousness of the world could be revoked but is instead sustained.

Another truth revealed itself in that encounter: that history is not always a fair judge of character. Edwards had been reduced in the popular imagination to the censorious preacher of a single sermon, but the man who once called us “sinners in the hands of an angry God” spent a lifetime pointing out that we are creatures in the embrace of a tender and generous one, too. Likewise, Robinson came to see Edwards’s fellow-Puritans not as finger-wagging prudes but as radical political reformers who preached, even if they did not always live up to, a social ethic with strict expectations around charity—a tradition of Christian liberalism and economic justice rarely acknowledged today.

And this:

“Mother Country” also helped determine the future of Robinson’s fiction. After the Sellafield lawsuit, she sought solace in historical examples of people whose moral clarity was disregarded by their contemporaries. She read about Dietrich Bonhoeffer and the Confessing Church in Nazi Germany, then turned her attention to the life and work of abolitionists in the United States. The year after “Mother Country” was published, Robinson accepted the job in Iowa, and, once in the Midwest, began exploring a constellation of colleges those abolitionists had built, among them Grinnell, Oberlin, Carleton, and Knox. Many of these institutions were integrated by race or gender or both—an egalitarianism so radical that a century later it took federal courts and the National Guard to enforce it elsewhere—and Robinson wondered what had happened to the visionary impulses behind them. The Second Great Awakening began as a broad movement for social and moral reform and spread across the entire frontier, only to be snuffed out after a single generation and misremembered today as nothing but an outburst of cultish religious enthusiasm.

What puzzled Robinson was not the moral clarity of the abolitionists but how the communities they established could so quickly abandon their ideological origins. This was Jonathan Edwards all over again: historical figures, flawed because they are human but full of promise for the same reason, who are maligned, underestimated, or forgotten. We often say that those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it, but that suggests that all we can learn from history is its errors and its failures. Robinson believes this to be a dangerously incomplete understanding, one that distorts our sense of the present and limits the possibilities of the future by overstating our own wisdom and overlooking the visionaries of earlier generations. “It is important to be serious and accurate about history,” she says. “It seems to me much of what is said today is shallow and empty and false. I believe in the origins of things, reading primary texts themselves—reading the things many people pretend to have read, or don’t even think need to be read because we all supposedly know what they say.”

This conviction was evident in Robinson’s seminars at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, and remains so today in her lectures around the world. She has assigned Calvin and Edwards when teaching Melville, read all of Sidney in order to talk about Shakespeare’s sonnets, and constructed her critiques of modern scientism from close readings of Darwin, Nietzsche, and Freud. She pursues the same project at her Congregational church, where she advocates for the reading of texts like John Winthrop’s “A Model of Christian Charity” while also calling for more outreach to immigrants and multilingual carols for children.

Read the entire piece here.